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This story is No. 4 in the series "Sidle Up and Smile". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: Mal was her son, all right: oddly perceptive at the most inconvenient times, and obstinately blind when he didn't care to see what was in front of him. (Ancient Slayers 'verse).

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Firefly > General(Recent Donor)jedibuttercupFR1357,78695622,1164 Aug 101 Sep 13Yes

What Separates Heroes

Title: What Separates Heroes

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Rating: PG-13

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not.

Summary: B:tVS/Firefly. Mal couldn't have said how long it took for the roaring in his ears to fade. 1600 words.

Spoilers: Firefly; "Serenity" (2005); the last seasons of Buffy & Angel.

Notes: For the Twistedshorts August Challenge. Mal's POV, immediately following "Long-Delayed Reunion".

Mal couldn't have said how long it took for the roaring in his ears to fade; not that it mattered, as she hadn't said nothing else he would have needed to respond to. And good thing, too. He'd seen her often enough in his dreams since the bombing of Shadow, rocking on the front porch while the sky tore open above her; watching her stand up next to Fay in the Maidenhead was like seeing a ghost walk out of his nightmares.

Gradually, though, he became aware of a dim throbbing pain in his left arm, and glanced down to see dark fingers dug into the meat of his bicep. He blinked at 'em, then shot a look over his shoulder at Zoë, and it were her expression more'n anything that brought the rest of the world rushing back to him.

Right. There to broker a deal. Which he was nowise going to be able to focus on, now.

"You might want to take this back to the ship, sir," she said, quietly. "Jayne and I can dicker with Fanty and Mingo without you."

He felt his ma's gaze still on him like a brand, close enough to reach out and touch; he ignored it with a heavy effort, cudgeling his brain to make sense of Zoë's words and muster a response. "You know they're like to raise the percentage again if'n I'm not here to flatter 'em," he pointed out.

"They're surer to raise it if you do," Zoë replied, dryly, "considerin' what happened the last time your 'domestic troubles' interrupted their business." She shot a flat, unfriendly look past him – the look she turned on intruders – and Mal felt a sudden, hot mixture of gratitude and defensiveness well up to displace the numbness.

Elizabeth Reynolds was his Ma. But Elizabeth Reynolds had been dead nigh on a decade, burned up with the ranch that had been Mal's childhood home. And – the thought occurred to him as he turned back to her, studying her face with eyes that saw the truth of things rather than shadows out of dream – she'd never looked quite that young before, neither. He might as well be living a leaf out of a storybook for all he could make sense of it. And he felt a little less like spinning off into the Black with the reminder that the rock of Zoë would still be there no matter what his Ma's resurrection might herald.

"I'm not here to cause trouble," she said softly, answering both Zoë's comment and his own fears in that knowing way that'd had him thinking she was some kind of divine avatar when he was small. 'Course, his Aunt Fay's stories of demon-fighting hadn't helped with that none; but she was a perceptive woman, and no mistake. And… maybe those stories had been a little less fanciful than he'd thought, if she was actually here, after everything.

"Didn't expect you were," he blurted. "Didn't expect you at all, actually. Ever. Ma...." He trailed off, voice thick in his throat.

Her lower lip wavered, and her eyes took on a shine; but no tears fell. None ever had; he'd never seen her cry, come hell or high water, cattle rustlers or drought or a slashed cheekbone from a belligerent húndàn who broke a bottle on the bar 'fore she could knock him down, nor even on his daddy's death day.

She'd smiled a lot more, when he was little. But never cried. And after, her smiles had all faded, shadows of the bright joy they'd held before. He'd never doubted she still loved him, though. Fiercely, and mostly at arm's length, but she'd raised him as strong and as upright as she knew how.

Shimmer in her eyes like that – he took it like a body blow, and broke, opening his arms to her. He'd grown tall enough to tuck her under his chin even 'fore he volunteered for the war; the press of hair against his throat and tough, lean muscle under his hands brought their last farewell rising to the forefront of his thoughts. She hadn't been happy to see him go, but she had been proud, and she'd hugged him tight enough to leave bruises before she'd let him on the transport.

Something felt different about it, though. And not just the natural distortion of memory after a long absence. Mal pulled back after a moment, frowning down at her, and finished off the sentence he'd let drop before: "...have you gained weight?"

Her jaw dropped instantly, expression washed clean in surprise; then she snorted and smacked the back of one hand across his chest. "That's the first question you ask me? Malcolm Wesley Reynolds!"

Yep. Definitely his Ma, impossible or not.

"Wesley?" Jayne commented, indignant. "And y'all make fun of my name?"

His Aunt Faith snickered, reminding Mal again that there were other people present. "Still your kid, B. What'd you expect? His lieu's right, though; we'd better take this back to his ship. Keep our personal business off the public feeds."

His mother blinked at that, then glanced around; there were a lot of other conversations going on in the Maidenhead, people bartering and drinking and indulging other vices as could get a man fined on Londinium, but every third pair of eyes or so were already straying their direction. Fact was, they were a fair motley group, and the public reunion, being both more tactile and less vulgar than most folk in the joint were used to seeing a man approach a woman, had drawn its share of attention. Mal noticed her noticing that; then she drew herself up into the compact figure of authority as had ruled four dozen ranch hands once upon a time without hardly lifting a finger, and nodded.

There was a bit more air they needed to clear first, though. "What do I tell the dock authorities?"

"Officially, I've decided I want to see the worlds on the cheap, so I'm signing on as your passenger," she said, with a slight, edged smile. "Unofficially, I'm here because my dear friend Charity Chase…"

"By which, she means me…" Fay smirked.

"…has taken leave of her sanity to pilot for a notorious Independent; and in the interests of guarding her virtue and finding new and interesting subjects to write Cortex articles about, I invited myself along."

"You mean, as far as Alliance is concerned," Mal caught on, recognizing her smirk with a certain degree of apprehension. "So what's your un, unofficial reason, the one Badger will sniff out like níushĭ and pay folk to tell? 'Cause you for damn sure wouldn't be here if all you wanted was–"

He cut himself off there for prudence's sake, but his mental cogs were already turning. His ma wasn't one for subtle action, but she could plan an assault as well as any general when she was of a mind. All too many competitors and ill-wishers had found that out the hard way when they'd tried to steal or manipulate business out from under a poor, newly-widowed slip of a ranch owner. The question was, how the guĭ did she end up playing such games out here? He had no doubt the rest of the answers he wanted were bound up in that one.

She gave him an apologetic grimace. "Far as any clues should lead? I'm a high-end merc named Xiăochén, subcontracting on the cheap in this time of unrest since my mèimèi took a shine to your merc and wanted help keeping him in one piece." She smiled past Mal at Jayne, all teeth; behind him, he heard the other man shuffle his feet.

"News to me," Jayne said, but he didn't exactly sound upset, neither.

Mal suppressed the urge to shudder as he recalled his aunt and Jayne singing a round of "The Hero of Canton" last time they'd crossed paths; it took on less mocking-of-Mal qualities and more corner of not my business and oh God I can't know that in hindsight.

Stood up to the man and gave him what for…

He blinked those images away and nodded. "Kaylee's our keeper of fare; you can talk to her later, 'board ship, about the details…"

"…Wait, you're actually gonna charge your ma a fare?" Jayne blurted.

"…Bì zuĭ, Jayne; and as for the rest of it; Zoë?"

"If you're satisfied she is who she says she is?" his second replied with a careful shrug.

"Then we'll get into the rest of it on Serenity," he allowed.

His ma nodded; then laid a hand on his arm, attitude suddenly a mite hesitant. "If there'd been another way, Mal… I'm not proud of keeping quiet, but I did what I thought I had to, to protect everyone."

"I'm not everyone; I'm your only child," he blurted in stung reply.

"Not… only," she said, looking up at him through guiltily lowered lashes.

His breath caught, frozen in his chest, and he had to swallow hard to break it free, knocked off kilter yet again. "Thought we weren't goin' to finish this here," was all he could find to reply.

She winced, then let go and started for the stairs, spine straight as a fencepost.

"Dàxiàng bàozhàshì de lā dùzi," Faith swore, then started after her, tugging at Mal's arm. "Told her this wouldn't go smooth. C'mon, wài shēng; point us at your ship before she gets lost."

Mal hesitated, glancing over at Zoë and Jayne; Zoë made a shooing gesture, her intent clear.

Mal swallowed, tasting rosemary and gall, and followed after his mother.


húndàn - bastard
níushĭ - cow dung
guĭ - hell
Xiăochén - early morning (aka, Dawn)
mèimèi - little sister
Bì zuĭ - shut up
Dàxiàng bàozhàshì de lā dùzi - The explosive diarrhea of an elephant
wài shēng - nephew (sister's son)

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